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Former US President Clinton:
Arab World Should Not Judge America Through State of Mideast Peace Process.

Fiona MacDonald

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Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States and while the Muslim faith should be better understood by the US, the Arab world should not judge America through the state of the Middle East peace process, former US president Bill Clinton said here Monday. Addressing the closing session of the second US-Islamic Forum, Clinton said that while "those in the West only see Islam through the spectre of terror," Muslims were basing their judgment of the United States on its role in finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Islam is the fastest growing religion in America, we have now six million plus Muslims in the United States," he said, recalling that hundreds of Muslims were among the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. "I think it is important that the Muslim world try to understand the United States... our country is judged by many Muslims based on how they think the Middle East peace process is going and whether they think we're doing enough to give the Palestinians a state and a decent future," said the ex-president.

"It is not the only standard," said Clinton who presided over the failed Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David in 2000, shortly before the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada or uprising against Israeli occupation.

But the three-day gathering, which grouped top American and Muslim leaders and thinkers to discuss ways to improve dialogue post 9/11, was hijacked by the Palestinian-Israeli issue. While debating other controversial issues, such as Iraq, America's future role in the Gulf and free trade, open sessions were overrun by the Middle East conflict, which Muslim participants described as the root of US-Islamic tensions that were merely exacerbated by the events of September 11.

Some US participants said that while the Arab-Israeli conflict should not be understated, the forum should emphasise building on issues both sides have in common, such as education and fighting the scourge of AIDS. "Serious, good people of goodwill can get a long way just by having honest conversations," Clinton said, hailing the move to boost dialogue, particularly in a small, conservative Muslim Gulf state.

Though some emerged from the largely closed-door forum confident that progress had been made, others were less impressed. "It's useless, because you can't establish a dialogue between a state and a religion," one Arab diplomat said, requesting anonymity. Some claimed the gathering was simply not serious enough, while a Western diplomat said it was no different to the first one, held here in 2002.

Clinton offered four observations: "We need to do more to understand how the two major players here understand each other. We need, secondly, to improve our capacity for self-criticism. "Third, we need to identify our common interests, and fourth, we need to build the habits of mind and heart necessary to end the habits of demonising those who are different from us."

But the common ground, though ostensibly in abundance, was harder to see while the differences were transparent. "Too many Americans know too little about the Islamic world. And much of what they know, they learned after September 11 through the narrow lense of terror. It is important but not sufficient because what people do out of anger, pain and fear both darkens and distorts reality," said Clinton. "We're human and we don't always know what the right thing to do is, and if this (Palestinian-Israeli conflict) were an easy problem someone would have solved it long ago," he added.

Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations, warned: "If we can't contain the growing chasm between the West and Arab world, it will be the underlying structural flaw," in the Arab-Israeli issue and others just as divisive. Leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Yussef Qaradawi said he remained "optimistic" the two sides "might find ourselves closer to each other. The good intentions will open the road to understanding."

But he, and other Muslims in attendance, maintained that Washington's "extreme bias" in favour of Israel "poisons" US-Muslim relations.

The response? America will not and can not compromise where support for Israel is concerned. "We can find common interests," Clinton said. "But we will all fail unless we believe our common humanity is more important than our hatred and differences."

www.middle-east-online.com

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